Call For Comments: Back in my day… Pop Cultural Literacy

From Mav: Once upon a time… well, probably once upon many times, Wayne mentioned on the show that if you ever get into a long conversation, or God forbid an argument with one of us on the Internet, then just assume that it’s going to become an episode of the show sooner or later. This is one of those shows. It’s based on a random tweet/facebook post that I made a couple days ago. First, some background: last week the band Tool released their first album in 13 years and it happened to bump Taylor Swift’s album, which has been out for a bit longer, out of the number one spot on the charts. Some of her younger fans complained because “who are these Tool guys.” Around the same time Post Malone released a duet with Ozzy Osbourne and some of Malone’s fans posted about not knowing who Ozzy is. And then, because everyone on the Internet is inherently an asshole, people started making fun of the “millennials” for being dumb.

I ended up tweeting/facebooking this:

I was being kinda silly… but I also meant it. And then I ended up getting into a few arguments on FB as to how true that was or whether I was being too simplistic because “it’s different because Ozzy and Tool are really big and culturally relevant.” I argued that Ozzy USED to be… but honestly, he’s a 70 year old grandpa who used to be on a reality TV show on basic cable and even that got cancelled 14 years ago… and even then part of the joke on THAT show was that he was old and out of touch. If anything, Malone introducing Osborne to a new generation is a good thing (btw, the song is awesome… seriously!). And Tool… was never that big. Sorry if you like them. But they aren’t. They’re a niche band… one that I happen to have a lot of friends who like them… but to pretend that they’ve had the impact in their 30 year history that Swift has had in her 15 is just ludicrous. And to assume that the larger younger fanbase should know stuff about the older smaller one is pompous and ridiculous. You don’t have to like that but it is what it is.

It was at this point that Wayne texted me and said “we’re doing a show on this right?” And of course we are.

We’ve talked about this sort of thing a little before. We mentioned it on our Soundtrack of your Life episode, and to an extent on our College Survival episode when we talked about how instructors will sometimes try to relate to students by using cultural touchstone references that end up being a decade out of date by the time the student was born. But how much can you really expect people to know cultural memes from outside of their culture? This isn’t just related to music. I remember taking a class on allegory during my Masters when we read The Crying of Lot 49 and there’s a part of the book where characters joke about “The Shadow” showing up, and all of my classmates were confused because … well, he never does. They assumed it was a literal character from inside the book because it was 2012 and a pulp radio hero from 80 years earlier just wasn’t on the radar of most of the students. Hell, the movie with Alec Baldwin was 18 years old by then and it was kind of a bomb (great pinball machine though!). I also had classmates who had trouble because they were raised as atheists so they might have missed some random allusion to Christianity because … well, those come up a lot in a class on allegory.

The point is, cultural touchstones are specific to subcultures. And subcultures often think they are bigger and more relevant than they are. Certain touchstones transcend their origins. I expect most people who are listening to contemporary music today know who Elvis is… or Michael Jackson… or Beethoven, even if they aren’t fans. Others, not so much. That doesn’t imply quality (at least not necessarily) and it doesn’t even imply influence, per se. It implies relevance. But what is cultural relevance? How do you get it? Is it ever really permanent or is it always eventually fleeting? After all, there was a time not long ago where everyone really did know the Shadow! That time has passed… and it’s passing for Ozzy now. For certain subcultures, there’s a bit of a war where one likes to call the other inferior for not getting their references. I think that’s what’s happening with the GenXers here and Tool. Since Tool’s fans think the band is great something simply MUST be wrong with “the millennials” for not knowing who they are. But I’d argue that the GenXers are now just old men yelling at clouds. So how does that happen? And why? And why does this happen so often with music?

Let us know your thoughts. And we’d probably like to get some younger guests on this show as well to have a good cross section with us old fogies.

From Wayne: I have no idea who Post Malone is.

5 Comments and 4 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Back in my day… Pop Cultural Literacy”

  1. Jana Carol Jana Carol says:

    I have always had niche taste. I loved sci-fi and fantasy as well as other music my family and friends had just never heard of. I never had a community until the internet. I just learned to except that I had no place in so called popular culture.

  2. i kinda wanna be on this one but i probably don’t know enough about taylor swift.

  3. Adam Sorber Adam Sorber says:

    @taylorswift13 @Tool @PostMalone @OzzyOsbourne @chrismaverick @wayne_wise I think it depends on where t…

  4. Adam Sorber says:

    I think it depends on where they claim to be coming from. I grew up loving music and playing several instruments, and while I regrettably spent a lot of time listening to the hair metal that my peers were into, I was familiar with folks like Elvis, Benny Goodman, and Chick (1/ )

  5. So, the only reason I have any idea who “the shadow” is is because of the Statler Brothers (Do You Remember These) and RHPS call backs ?

    And, hey if you can point me at a Tool song that I might recogize, that would be great ?

    (My SO tried, he recognized them. I’m just sitting in null space *shrugs*)

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